Patently important: competitive intelligence from patents


Katy Wood of Minesoft explains how patents are hiding a treasure trove of information waiting to be unlocked with the right solution

Transforming patent data into actionable technical, business and legal knowledge is a priority for any innovation-driven organisation with a strong intellectual property rights culture. Patents are often the first published evidence of a new product or process in the public domain, and a significant volume, commonly cited as between 70 and 80 percent, of the world’s technical and scientific information is only ever made available in patents. The systematic retrieval and assessment of patent data can provide a window onto competitor activity, offering insights into technology trends and research and development activity, and identifying competitors and potential partners. Implementing a competitive intelligence programme that centres on published patent information can help shape corporate strategy and steer research and development efforts.

As awareness of the value of patent information as a source of commercial insight across industries grows, we examine how this information can be harnessed with increasingly sophisticated patent search and analysis software.

Proliferation of patents

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) 2015 IP Facts and Figures Report published in early 2016, global filing activity for patents (and trademarks) grew in 2014, representing the fifth consecutive year that patent applications have increased. An estimated 2.7 million patent applications were filed worldwide in 2014—up 4.5 percent on 2013—with filings in China driving the strong growth. In fact, as WIPO points out in its 2015 World IP Indicators report, over the past three decades patent filings have almost tripled, with large multinational companies increasingly seeking patent protection beyond their domestic borders.

The huge volume of patent data being published and now available electronically to search via public patent office websites or in an aggregated commercial database such as PatBase (developed by Minesoft and RWS Group) presents a challenge to companies wishing to tap into this rich source of competitive intelligence. Espacenet, the patent database from the European Patent Office (EPO), offers free access to more than 90 million documents from the 1800s onwards. PatBase currently contains in excess of 35 terabytes of patent data drawn from more than 100 global patent issuing authorities.

Challenges of language

Sifting through these mountains of complex data can be laborious, but professional patent databases enable searchers to hone a set of search results using keywords, patent classifications, patent citations, assignees and other criteria. Overcoming language barriers during the initial phase of patent research—before a searcher even begins to start analysing the data and drawing conclusions—is vital.

The main way in which the international IP professionals have sought to address the issue is with the use of machine translation. PatBase, for example, contains English-language searchable machine translations for the millions of Chinese, Japanese and Korean patents available, as well as on-demand machine translation tools. Cross-language information retrieval tools, such as the Language Explorer in PatBase, have also been developed to assist searchers in broadening the scope of their patent search by using synonyms in different languages, to help ensure they also retrieve patents not published in their native language. Several patent database providers offer multi-lingual interfaces for their services in an effort to improve access for researchers globally.

Chemical patents

It is not only language that can present a barrier to accessing and understanding patent information. Minesoft recently announced a drive to open up the world of chemical innovation with their new software product, Minesoft Chemical Explorer. Many industries including pharmaceutical, biotech, chemical, consumer, cosmetic and engineering rely on chemicals, but extracting the valuable information contained in published chemical patents has historically been a time-consuming and expensive process.

Until recently, chemical information in patents has been available through a number of well-established databases such as CAS SciFinder and Elsevier Reaxys, which had to rely on the naturally more costly approach of manual indexing, driving up costs and available predominantly to industrial scientists. Furthermore, although manual indexing provides accurate data, the ever-increasing volume of patents published each year is a challenge in terms of extending coverage and turnaround time.

Recently, advances have been made in chemical name entity recognition (CNER) technology, which have allowed large scale, automated data mining. SureChEMBL and IBM SIIP are examples of databases utilising such technology. When considering a new chemical text-mining resource, factors for success would encompass country coverage, language recognition and data timeliness. Building on the success of its patent full text database, PatBase, Minesoft has recently launched Chemical Explorer, giving users an alternative resource. Utilising CNER technology and updating daily, Chemical Explorer extracts and identifies the chemical entities disclosed in English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese and Korean from the full text of patents issued from more than 12 authorities already and makes this available to users at a cost-effective, all-inclusive subscription based cost.

The use of CNER technology in Minesoft Chemical Explorer has opened up a new world of chemical prior art where, compared to manual indexing, there is no limit to the number of chemicals identified per document, no specific internal policy dictating what is identified and indexed, and previously unidentified non-Latin chemicals are also made available. With the ability to draw or import a chemical structure easily, or indeed to retrieve a chemical structure from a generic, trade or International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry name, or from a Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number, Minesoft Chemical Explorer allows both chemists and non-chemists to complete a structure-based search and access the mine of chemical information available in patents.

Analysis for insights

Tapping into patent data by performing a search on free or commercial databases is just the start of the journey to gain actionable intelligence. Visualisation and analysis of large patent data sets of tens of thousands of patents at one time can be performed using third-party standalone analysis or landscaping tools, or increasingly within a patent search database. Analysis based on criteria including geography (jurisdiction), patent technology classifications, patent assignee, publication year, keywords and legal status information can be carried out to identify areas for further research, view competitor activity trends over time, and spot gaps in the market.

Patent analysis can be applied both internally and externally, with internal analysis allowing an organisation to assess its own patent portfolio and understand strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth or licensing of certain technologies. External patent analysis, ie, gaining information on competitors, is a widely-used approach. Patent landscape studies are growing in popularity as a means for organisations to get a grip on their strategic position within the industry, and to assess the value of their patent portfolios. Software such as Minesoft’s PatBase Analytics has been used to create patent landscape studies in areas of particular significance, such as the Ebola virus outbreak.

Maintain a competitive edge

While undertaking periodic analyses of competitor patent portfolios or the patent landscape in a particular field is one certain way to gather business intelligence, systematically monitoring newly published patent information provides a complimentary and highly effective way of keeping an eye on the competition. A named competitor or patent assignee watch, which alerts recipients to any new applications filed by assignees of interest, is one of the most requested services offered by IP law firms, providing an insight into the research and development activities and priorities of a client’s competitor, customer or supplier.

Automated current awareness alerts can be set up on all major patent databases to monitor the latest published patent literature in a certain technology area or originating from competitors. A fast updating, high-quality patent database is best for such as task, which will offer additional features such as properly translated and curated data of company names (patent assignees) and other enhancements to the raw patent data, such as consolidated patent families and additional classification tools to improve search quality and reduce duplication.

Monitoring patent information is not limited to watching named competitors or fields of technology. Services are available that enable users to gain competitive intelligence from patents from a different angle, for example, services to automatically track the status of individual patent applications or very specific elements of patent information such as legal status events or citations. Automating the process saves time and costs, also eliminating the need to scour different websites carrying out weekly manual checks. Minesoft’s Legal Status Tracker service, for example, tracks changes to the European Patent Office’s comprehensive INPADOC legal status file, which spans over 60 global patenting authorities. Patent professionals can be alerted to even the slightest change in legal status of patents within their own or their competitors’ portfolios, such as opposition filings, applications being withdrawn or grants in certain countries. Concise email reports contain links to patent registers for further real-time legal status information.

Patents offer a well-codified, fully searchable and readily available pool of competitive intelligence waiting to be exploited with advanced tools developed by a few companies specialising in this field. Those diving in are faced with challenges of volume and accessibility, but perseverance and employment of specialist databases and software that automate many of the processes will pay off in terms of the wealth of insights to be gained. Analysing patent information undoubtedly will help an organisation improve its overall understanding not only about competitors but about how it relates to the global field of activity. Importantly, it can give a more informed basis for business decisions about the future direction of the company and due to this, patent information and patent analysis is being given more weight in board rooms, a healthy indicator for IP professionals.
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